Happy Are the Sad
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. (5:4)
In Psalm 55 David cries out, “Oh, that I had wings like a dove! I would fly away and be at rest. Behold, I would wander far away, I would lodge in the wilderness. I would hasten to my place of refuge from the stormy wind and tempest” (vv. 6–8).
Such a cry comes from the lips of almost everyone at some time or another. David echoes the cry of humanity—a cry for release, a cry for freedom, a cry for escape from things that weigh heavy on us. When we face great sorrow, disappointment, tragedy, or failure, we wish that we could escape the trouble like we escape a thunderstorm by running inside. But comfort from the troubles of life is much harder to find than shelter from rain. The deeper the sorrow, the harder the pressure, the worse the despair, the more elusive comfort seems to be.
As pointed out in the previous chapter, all of the Beatitudes are paradoxical, because what they promise for what they demand seems incongruous and upside down in the eyes of the natural man. The paradox of the second beatitude is obvious. What could be more self-contradictory than the idea that the sad are happy, that the path to happiness is sadness, that the way to rejoicing is in mourning?
In the routine of ordinary, day-by-day living, the idea seems absurd. The whole structure of most human living—whether by the primitive or sophisticated, the wealthy or the poor, the educated or the uneducated—is based on the seemingly incontrovertible principle that the way to happiness is having things go your own way. Pleasure brings happiness, money brings happiness, entertainment brings happiness, fame and praise bring happiness, self-expression brings happiness. On the negative side, avoiding pain, trouble, disappointment, frustration, hardships, and other problems brings happiness. Sidestepping those things is necessary before the other things can bring full happiness. Throughout history a basic axiom of the world has been that favorable things bring happiness, whereas unfavorable things bring unhappiness. The principle seems so self-evident that most people would not bother to debate it.
But Jesus said, “Happy are the sad.” He even went so far as to say, “Woe to you who laugh now, for you shall mourn and weep” (Luke 6:25)—the converse beatitude of Matthew 5:4. Jesus turned the world’s principles exactly upside down. He reversed the path to happiness.
To discover what Jesus meant, and did not mean, in this beatitude we will look at the meaning of mourning as it is used here, the result of mourning, the way to mourn as Jesus teaches, and the way to know if we are truly mourning.
The Meaning of Mourning
Certain kinds of sorrow are common to all mankind, experienced by believer and unbeliever alike. Some of these sorrows are normal and legitimate, sorrows which concern the Lord and for which He knows our need. Others are abnormal and illegitimate, brought about solely because of sinful passions and objectives.
Improper mourning is the sorrow of those who are frustrated in fulfilling evil plans and lusts, or who have misguided loyalties and affection. To those who mourn in that way the Lord offers no help or solace.
David’s son “Amnon was so frustrated because of his sister Tamar that he made himself ill, for she was a virgin, and it seemed hard to Amnon to do anything to her” (2 Sam. 13:2). Amnon’s grief was caused by incestuous, unfulfilled lust.
Others carry legitimate sorrow to illegitimate extremes. When a person grieves so hard and so long over the loss of a loved one that he cannot function normally, his grief becomes sinful and destructive. Such depressing sorrow is usually related to guilt, essentially selfish, and, for a Christian, is a mark of unfaithfulness and lack of trust in God.
David grieved that way, in part to try to atone for his guilt. When the rebellious Absalom, another of David’s sons, was killed, his father went into inconsolable mourning (2 Sam. 18:33–19:4). Joab finally rebuked the king, saying, “Today you have covered with shame the faces of all your servants, who today have saved your life and the lives of your sons and daughters, the lives of your wives, and the lives of your concubines, by loving those who hate you, and by hating those who love you. For you have shown today that princes and servants are nothing to you; for I know this day that if Absalom were alive and all of us were dead today, then you would be pleased” (19:5–6). The wickedly ambitious Absalom had raised a rebel army, driven the king—his own father—out of Jerusalem, and taken over the palace.
David’s love for his son was understandable, but his judgment had been perverted. Probably because of his great feeling of guilt for having been such a poor father, and because he knew that Absalom’s tragedy was part of the judgment God sent because of David’s adulterous and murderous affair with Bathsheba, the king’s mourning over Absalom was abnormal. The judgment that came on Absalom was entirely deserved.
There are also, of course, other kinds of sorrow, legitimate sorrows that are common to all mankind and for which reasonable mourning is appropriate. To express these sorrows and to cry over them opens an escape valve that keeps our feelings from festering and poisoning our emotions and our whole life. It provides the way for healing, just as washing out a wound helps prevent infection.
An Arab proverb says, “All sunshine makes a desert.” The trouble-free life is likely to be a shallow life. We often learn more and mature more from times of sorrow than from times when everything is going well. A familiar poem by Robert Browning Hamilton expresses the truth:
I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way,
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.
I walked a mile with Sorrow,
And ne’er a word said she,
But, oh, the things I learned from her
When Sorrow walked with me.
(Cited in William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew [rev. ed.; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975], 1:94)
Sarah’s death caused Abraham to mourn (Gen. 23:2). But the “father of the faithful” did not weep from lack of faith but for the loss his beloved wife, which he had every right to do.
Loneliness for God, from whom he felt separated for a time, caused the psalmist to declare, “As the deer pants for the water brooks, so my soul pants for Thee, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God; when shall I come and appear before God? My tears have been my food day and night, while they say to me all day long, “Where is your God?’ ” (Ps. 42:1–3).
Defeat and discouragement caused Timothy to mourn, leading Paul, his spiritual father, to write, “I thank God, whom I serve with a clear conscience the way my forefathers did, as I constantly remember you in my prayers night and day, longing to see you, even as I recall your tears, so that I may be filled with joy” (2 Tim. 1:3–4).
Anguished concern about the sins of Israel and God’s coming judgment on His people caused Jeremiah to mourn. “Oh, that my head were waters, and my eyes a fountain of tears,” he cried, “that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!” (Jer. 9:1).
Concern for the spiritual welfare of the Ephesian believers had caused Paul to mourn. “Night and day for a period of three years I did not cease to admonish each one with tears,” he said (Acts 20:31). Because of their great love for him the elders from the Ephesus church later mourned for Paul as he prayed with them on the beach near Miletus, “grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they should see his face no more” (v. 38).
The earnest love of a father caused him to be grief-stricken over his demon-possessed son, even as he brought him to Jesus for healing. No doubt tears ran down the man’s face as He implored Jesus to help, confessing “I do believe; help my unbelief” (Mark 9:24).
Repentant, worshipful devotion caused a woman to mourn over her sins as she went into the Pharisee’s house and washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. To the proud host who resented her contaminating his house and interrupting his dinner party, Jesus said, “I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:47).
Immeasurable divine love caused our Lord to weep at the death of Lazarus (John 11:35) and over the sinning people of Jerusalem, whom He wanted to gather into His care as a mother hen gathers her chicks (Matt. 23:37).
The mourning about which Jesus is talking in the second beatitude, however, has nothing to do with the types just discussed, proper or improper. The Lord is concerned about all of the legitimate sorrows of His children, and He promises to console, comfort, and strengthen us when we turn to Him for help. But those are not the kind of sorrow at issue here. Jesus is speaking of godly sorrow, godly mourning, mourning that only those who sincerely desire to belong to Him or who already belong to Him can experience.
Paul speaks of this sorrow in his second letter to Corinth. “For the sorrow that is according to the will of God produces a repentance without regret, leading to salvation; but the sorrow of the world produces death. For behold what earnestness this very thing, this godly sorrow, has produced in you” (2 Cor. 7:10–11). The only sorrow that brings spiritual life and growth is godly sorrow, sorrow over sin that leads to repentance. Godly sorrow is linked to repentance, and repentance is linked to sin.
As the first beatitude makes clear, entrance into the kingdom of heaven begins with being “poor in spirit,” with recognition of total spiritual bankruptcy. The only way any person can come to Jesus Christ is empty-handed, totally destitute and pleading for God’s mercy and grace. Without a sense of spiritual poverty no one can enter the kingdom. And when we enter the kingdom we should never lose that sense, knowing “that nothing good dwells in [us], that is, in [our] flesh” (Rom. 7:18).
Spiritual poverty leads to godly sorrow; the poor in spirit become those who mourn. After his great sin involving Bathsheba and Uriah, David repented and expressed his godly sorrow in Psalm 51: “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against Thee, Thee only, I have sinned, and done what is evil in Thy sight” (vv. 3–4). Job was a model believer, “blameless, upright, fearing God, and turning away from evil” (Job. 1:1). Yet he still had something to learn about God’s greatness and his own unworthiness, about God’s infinite wisdom and his own very imperfect understanding. Only after God allowed everything dear to Job to be taken away and then lectured His servant on His sovereignty and His majesty, did Job finally come to the place of godly sorrow, of repenting of and mourning over his sin. He confessed, “I have heard of Thee by the hearing of the ear; but now my eye sees Thee; therefore I retract, and I repent in dust and ashes” (42:5–6). God loves and honors a morally righteous life, but it is no substitute for a humble and contrite heart, which God loves and honors even more (Isa. 66:2).
As seen in the discussion of the first beatitude, makarios (blessed) means to be happy, blissful. That happiness is a divine pronouncement, the assured benefit of those who meet the conditions God requires.
The condition of the second beatitude is mourning: blessed are those who mourn. Nine different Greek words are used in the New Testament to speak of sorrow, reflecting its commonness in man’s life. It is woven into the cloth of the human situation. The story of history is the story of tears. And before the earth’s situation gets better it will get worse. Jesus tells us that before He comes again, “nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and in various places there will be famines and earthquakes. But all these things are merely the beginning of birth pangs” (Matt. 24:7–8). Until the Lord returns, history is destined to go from tragedy to greater tragedy, from sorrow to still greater sorrow.
Of the nine terms used for sorrow, the one used here (pentheō, mourn) is the strongest, the most severe. It represents the deepest, most heart-felt grief, and was generally reserved for grieving over the death of a loved one. It is used in the Septuagint (Greek Old Testament) for Jacob’s grief when he thought his son Joseph was killed by a wild animal (Gen. 37:34). It is used of the disciples’ mourning for Jesus before they knew He was raised from the dead (Mark 16:10). It is used of the mourning of world business leaders over the death of its commerce because of the destruction of the world system during the Tribulation (Rev. 18:11, 15).
The word carries the idea of deep inner agony, which may or may not be expressed by outward weeping, wailing, or lament. When David stopped hiding his sin and began mourning over it and confessing it (Ps. 32:3–5), he could declare, “How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the Lord does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit!” (vv. 1–2).
Happiness, or blessedness, does not come in the mourning itself. Happiness comes with what God does in response to it, with the forgiveness that such mourning brings. Godly mourning brings God’s forgiveness, which brings God’s happiness. Mourning is not merely a psychological or emotional experience that makes people feel better. It is a communion with the living, loving God who responds to the mourner with an objective reality—the reality of divine forgiveness!
David experienced and expressed many kinds of common human sorrow, both proper and improper. He mourned over being lonely, over being rejected, over being discouraged and disappointed, and over losing an infant child. He also mourned inordinately over the death of Absalom, whom God had removed to protect Israel and the messianic throne of David. But nothing broke the heart of David like his own sin. No anguish was as deep as the anguish he felt when he finally saw the awfulness of his offenses against the Lord. That is when David became happy, when he became truly sad over his transgressions.
The world says, “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, and smile, smile, smile.” Hide your problems and pretend to be happy. The same philosophy is applied to sin. But Jesus says, “Confess your sins, and mourn, mourn, mourn.” When we do that, our smiles can be genuine, because our happiness will be genuine. Godly mourning brings godly happiness, which no amount of human effort or optimistic pretense, no amount of positive thinking or possibility thinking, can produce.
Only mourners over sin are happy because only mourners over sin have their sins forgiven. Sin and happiness are totally incompatible. Where one exists, the other cannot. Until sin is forgiven and removed, happiness is locked out. Mourning over sin brings forgiveness of sin, and forgiveness of sin brings a freedom and a joy that cannot be experienced in any other way.
“Draw near to God and He will draw near to you,” James tells us. “Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves in the presence of the Lord, and He will exalt you” (James 4:8–10).
There is great need in the church today to cry instead of laugh. The frivolity, silliness, and foolishness that go on in the name of Christianity should themselves make us mourn. God’s counsel to the frivolous happy, the self-satisfied happy, the indulgent happy is: “Be miserable and mourn and weep; let your laughter be turned into mourning, and your joy into gloom.”
The faithful child of God is constantly broken over his sinfulness, and the longer he lives and the more mature he becomes in the Lord, the harder it is for him to be frivolous. He sees more of God’s love and mercy, but he also sees more of his own and the world’s sinfulness. To grow in grace is also to grow in awareness of sin. Speaking to Israel, the prophet Isaiah said, “In that day the Lord God of hosts called you to weeping, to wailing, to shaving the head, and to wearing sackcloth. Instead, there is gaiety and gladness, killing of cattle and slaughtering of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine.” Following the world’s philosophy, which still prevails today, God’s ancient people said, “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we may die” (Isa. 22:12–13).
We follow that philosophy vicariously, if not actually, when we laugh at the world’s crude and immoral jokes even though we do not retell them, when we are entertained by a sin even though we do not indulge in it, when we smile at ungodly talk even though we do not repeat the words. To joke about divorce, to make light of brutality, to be intrigued by sexual immorality is to rejoice when we should be mourning, to be laughing when we should be crying. To “rejoice in the perversity of evil” is placed alongside “delight in doing evil” (Prov. 2:14). To take “pleasure in wickedness” (2 Thess. 2:12) is to be a part of the wickedness, whether or not we commit the specific sin.
Much of the church today has a defective sense of sin, which is reflected in this defective sense of humor. When even its own members make the church the butt of jokes, make light of its beliefs and ordinances, caricature its leaders as inept and clownish, and make its high standards of purity and righteousness the subject of humorous commentary, the church has great need to turn its laughter into mourning.
The Bible recognizes a proper sense of humor, humor that is not at the expense of God’s name, God’s Word, God’s church, or any person, except perhaps ourselves. God knows that “a joyful heart is good medicine” (Prov. 17:22), but a heart that rejoices in sin is taking poison, not medicine. The way to happiness is not in ignoring sin, much less in making light of it, but rather in sorrow over it that cries to God.
We can react to our spiritual bankruptcy in one of several ways. Like the Pharisees we can deny our spiritual destitution and pretend we are spiritually rich. Or, like monastics and advocates of moral rearmament, we can admit our condition and try to change it in our own power and by our own efforts. Or we can admit our condition and then despair over it to such a degree that we try to drown it in drink, escape it by drugs or by activity, or give up completely and commit suicide, as Judas did. Because they can find no answer in themselves or in the world, these people conclude that there is no answer. Or, like the prodigal son, we can admit our condition, mourn over it, and turn to the heavenly Father to remedy our poverty (see Luke 15:11–32).
Mourning over sin is not being engulfed in despair. Even the person who has been severely disciplined by the church should be forgiven, comforted, and loved, “lest somehow such a one be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Cor. 2:7–8). Nor is godly mourning wallowing in self-pity and false humility, which are really badges of pride.
True mourning over sin does not focus on ourselves, not even on our sin. It focuses on God, who alone can forgive and remove our sin. It is an attitude that begins when we enter the kingdom and lasts as long as we are on earth. It is the attitude of Romans 7. Contrary to some popular interpretation, Paul is not here speaking simply about his former condition. The problems of chapter 7 were not one-time experiences that were completely replaced by the victories of chapter 8. The apostle clearly says, “For that which I am doing I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (7:15). Here he uses the present tense, as he does throughout the rest of the chapter: “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; … for the good that I wish, I do not do; but I practice the very evil that I do not wish” (vv. 18–19); “I find then the principle that evil is present in me” (v. 21); “Wretched man that I am!… So then, on the one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (vv. 24–25).
Paul wrote those words at the height of his ministry. Yet righteousness and sin were still fighting a battle in his life. As he acknowledges in verse 25, the way of victory is “through Jesus Christ our Lord,” but the rest of the verse makes clear that, at that time, the victory was not yet complete. He knew where the victory was, and he had tasted the victory many times. But he knew that, in this life, it is never a permanent victory. The presence of the flesh sees to that. Permanent victory is assured to us now, but it is not given to us now.
Paul not only spoke of the creation anxiously longing for restoration, but of his own longing for complete restoration. “And not only this, but also we ourselves, having the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our body” (Rom. 8:19, 22–23). Paul was tired of sin, tired of fighting it in himself, as well as in the church and in the world. He longed for relief. “For indeed in this house we groan,” he said, “longing to be clothed with our dwelling from heaven.” He greatly preferred “rather to be absent from the body and to be at home with the Lord” (2 Cor. 5:2, 8).
The mark of the mature life is not sinlessness, which is reserved for heaven, but growing awareness of sinfulness. “If we say that we have no sin,” John warns, “we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8–9). The subjects of God’s kingdom—the forgiven ones, the children of God and joint heirs with the Son—are characterized by continual confession of sin.
Several years ago a college student said to me, “I’ve been liberated. Someone explained to me the true meaning of 1 John 1:9, and now I realize that I no longer have to confess my sins.” I asked him, “Well, do you still confess your sins?” “I just told you that I don’t have to anymore,” he replied. “I know you did,” I said, “but do you still confess your sins?” When he replied, “Yes, that’s what bothers me,” I stopped being bothered. I said, “I’m very glad to hear that,” and then told him that I knew that, despite the false teaching to which he had been exposed, he was a genuine Christian. His redeemed nature refused to go along with the false teaching his mind had temporarily accepted.
Penthountes (mourn) is a present participle, indicating continuous action. In other words, those who are continually mourning are those who will be continually comforted. In his ninety-five theses Martin Luther said that the Christian’s entire life is a continuous act of repentance and contrition. In his psalms David cried out, “For my iniquities are gone over my head; as a heavy burden they weigh too much for me” (38:4) and, “I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” (51:3).
There is no record in the New Testament of Jesus laughing. We are told of His weeping, His anger, His hunger and thirst, and many other human emotions and characteristics. But if He laughed, we do not know of it. We do know that, as Isaiah predicted, He was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Yet today we often hear of another Jesus, who laughs and cajoles and draws people into the kingdom by His nonjudgmental spirit and His winsome way. The fun-loving, escapist world of comedians is found plying its trade even in the church—and finding ready acceptance.
The Result of Mourning
The result of godly mourning is comfort: they shall be comforted. That is why they are blessed. It is not the mourning that blesses, but the comfort God gives to those who mourn in a godly way.
The emphatic pronoun autos (they) indicates that only those who mourn over sin will be comforted. The blessing of God’s comfort is reserved exclusively for the contrite of heart. It is only those who mourn for sin who will have their tears wiped away by the loving hand of Jesus Christ.
Comforted is from parakaleō, the same word that, as a noun, is rendered Comforter, or Helper, in John 14:16, where we are told that Jesus was the first Helper, and the Holy Spirit is “another Helper.”
The Old Testament also speaks of God comforting those who mourn. Isaiah tells of the Messiah’s coming, among other things, “to comfort all who mourn, to grant those who mourn in Zion, giving them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning” (Isa. 61:2–3). David was comforted by the rod and staff of his divine Shepherd (Ps. 23:4).
As our mourning rises to the throne of God, His unsurpassed and matchless comfort descends from Him by Christ to us. Ours is the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3), who is always ready to meet our need, admonishing, sympathizing, encouraging, and strengthening. God is a God of comfort, Christ is a Christ of comfort, and the Holy Spirit is a Spirit of comfort. As believers we have the comfort of the entire Trinity!
Shall be does not refer to the end of our lives or the end of the age. Like all other blessings of God, it will be completed only when we see our Lord face-to-face. In the eternal heavenly state God “shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4).
But the comfort of Matthew 5:4 is future only in the sense that the blessing comes after the obedience; the comfort comes after the mourning. As we continually mourn over our sin, we shall be continually comforted—now, in this present life. God is not only the God of future comfort but of present comfort. “God our Father” already has “given us eternal comfort and good hope by grace” (2 Thess. 2:16).
Even God’s written Word is a present comforter, given for our encouragement and hope (Rom. 15:4). And as God Himself gives us comfort and His Word gives us comfort, we are called to comfort each other with the promises of His Word (1 Thess. 4:18; cf. 2 Cor. 1:6; 7:13; 13:11; etc.).
Happiness comes to sad people because their godly sadness leads to God’s comfort. “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden,” Jesus says, “and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). He will lift the burden from those who mourn over sin, and He will give rest to those who are weary of sin. As often as we confess our sin, He is faithful to forgive, and for as long as we mourn over sin He is faithful to comfort.
How to Mourn
What does true mourning over sin involve? How can we become godly mourners?
The first step requires removing the hindrances that keep us from mourning, the things that make us content with ourselves, that make us resist God’s Spirit and question His Word, and that harden our hearts. A stony heart does not mourn. It is insensitive to God, and His plow of grace cannot break it up. It only stores up wrath till the day of wrath.
Love of sin is the primary hindrance to mourning. Holding on to sin will freeze and petrify a heart. Despair hinders mourning because despair is giving up on God, refusing to believe that He can save and help. Despair is putting ourselves outside God’s grace. Of such people Jeremiah writes, “They will say, ‘It’s hopeless! For we are going to follow our own plans, and each of us will act according to the stubbornness of his evil heart’ ” (Jer. 18:12). The one who despairs believes he is destined to sin. Because he believes God has given up on him, he gives up on God. Despair excuses sin by choosing to believe that there is no choice. Despair hides God’s mercy behind a self-made cloud of doubt.
Another hindrance is conceit, which tries to hide the sin itself, choosing to believe that there is nothing over which to mourn. It is the spiritual counterpart of a doctor treating a cancer as if it were a cold. If it was necessary for Jesus Christ to shed His blood on the cross to save us from our sin, our sin must be great indeed!
Presumption hinders mourning because it is really a form of pride. It recognizes the need for grace, but not much grace. It is satisfied with cheap grace, expecting God to forgive little because it sees little to be forgiven. Sins are bad, but not bad enough to be confessed, repented of, and forsaken. Yet the Lord declared through Isaiah, “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him; and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon” (Isa. 55:7). No pardon is offered to the unrepentant, presumptuous person who refuses to forsake his sin. The gospel that teaches otherwise has always been popular, as it clearly is in our own day; but it is a false gospel, “a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6), a distortion and contradiction of the gospel of Scripture.
Procrastination hinders godly mourning simply by putting it off. It says, “One of these days, when things are just right, I’ll take a hard look at my sins, confess them, and ask God’s forgiveness and cleansing.” But procrastination is foolish and dangerous, because we “do not know what [our] life will be like tomorrow. [We] are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away” (James 4:14). The sooner the disease of sin is dealt with the sooner comfort will come. If it is not dealt with, we have no assurance that comfort will ever come, because we have no assurance we will have time to confess it later.
The most important step we can take in getting rid of hindrances to mourning, whatever they are, is to look at the holiness of God and the great sacrifice of sin-bearing at the cross. If seeing Christ die for our sins does not thaw a cold heart or break up a hardened heart, it is beyond melting or breaking. In her poem “Good Friday,” Christina Rossetti gives these moving lines:
Am I a stone and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy Blood’s slow loss
And yet not weep?
Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;
Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky.
A horror of great darkness at broad noon—
I, only I.
Yet give not oe’r
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.
study god’s word
The second step toward godly mourning is to study sin in Scripture, to learn what an evil and repulsive thing it is to God and what a destructive and damning thing it is to us. We should learn from David to keep our sin ever before us (Ps. 51:3) and from Isaiah to say, “Woe is me, for I am ruined! Because I am a man of unclean lips” (Isa. 6:5). We should learn from Peter to say, “I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8) and from Paul to confess that we are the chief of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). As we hear those great men of God talking about their sin, we are forced to face the reality and the depth of our own.
Sin tramples on God’s laws, makes light of His love, grieves His Spirit, spurns His forgiveness and blessing, and in every way resists His grace. Sin makes us weak and makes us impure. It robs us of comfort and, much more importantly, robs God of glory.
The third step toward godly mourning is to pray for contriteness of heart, which only God can give and which He never refuses to give those who ask. It must always be recognized that humility depends on the working of the Lord. The way to godly mourning lies not in pre-salvation human works, but in God’s saving grace.
How to Know if We Are Mourning as Christ Commands
Knowing whether or not we have godly mourning is not difficult. First, we need to ask ourselves if we are sensitive to sin. If we laugh at it, take it lightly, or enjoy it, we can be sure we are not mourning over it and are outside the sphere of God’s blessing.
The mock righteousness of hypocrites who make every effort to appear holy on the outside (see Matt. 6:1–18) has no sensitivity to sin, only sensitivity to personal prestige and reputation. Nor does the mock gratitude of those who thank God they are better than other people (Luke 18:11). Saul regretted that he had disobeyed God by not slaying King Agag and by sparing the best of the Amalekite animals. But he was not repentant; he did not mourn over his sin. He instead tried to excuse his actions by claiming that the animals were spared so that they could be sacrificed to God and that the people made him do what he did. He twice admitted that he had sinned, and even asked Samuel for pardon. But his real concern was not for the Lord’s honor but for his own. “I have sinned; but please honor me now before the elders of my people and before Israel” (1 Sam. 15:30). Saul had ungodly regret, not godly mourning.
The godly mourner will have true sorrow for his sins. His first concern is for the harm his sin does to God’s glory, not the harm its exposure might bring to his own reputation or welfare.
If our mourning is godly we will grieve for the sins of fellow believers and for the sins of the world. We will cry with the psalmist, “My eyes shed streams of water, because they do not keep Thy law” (Ps. 119:136). We will wish with Jeremiah that our heads were fountains of water that we could have enough tears for weeping (Jer. 9:1; cf. Lam. 1:16). With Ezekiel we will search out faithful believers “who sigh and groan over all the abominations which are being committed” around us (Ezek. 9:4; cf. Ps. 69:9). We will look out over the community where we live and weep, as Jesus looked out over Jerusalem and wept (Luke 19:41).
The second way to determine if we have genuine mourning over sin is to check our sense of God’s forgiveness. Have we experienced the release and freedom of knowing our sins are forgiven? Do we have His peace and joy in our life? Can we point to true happiness He has given in response to our mourning? Do we have the divine comfort He promises to those who have forgiven, cleansed, and purified lives?
The godly mourners “who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him” (Ps. 126:5–6).
Life on Wings
In one of the great Old Testament Psalms, after a passionate description of the disappointments and bitterness of this life, David cries out, “Oh, that I had the wings of a dove! I would fly away and be at rest—I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm” (Ps. 55:6–8). In these words David voices a wish that is as ancient as fallen humanity and which will endure as long as men live on this planet. It is a cry for freedom, for life on wings. It is uttered by those who yearn for comfort in a life of bitterness, frustration, disappointment, and trials.
All men know the longing for freedom, sometimes intensely, but not all find the solution. Fortunately, David found it. For he said, “But I call to God, and the Lord saves me” (v. 16). God was David’s solution. God gave him joy. In his joy he recommended a life of trusting to others: “Cast your cares on the Lord and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous fall” (v. 22). David had found that the way of escape in life’s sorrows does not lie to the north or the south—or to any of the points of the compass—but upward, and that God himself provides it. He would have said with Isaiah, “But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isa. 40:31).
I believe that the second of the Lord’s Beatitudes is a New Testament expression of this identical lesson, for it speaks of the happiness of the man whom God comforts. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” And there is no comfort to compare with the comfort given to a man by God.
Mourning for Others
The unusual thing about Christ’s statement, however, is that he links the comfort of God to mourning, or to what we would call intense sorrow, and he seems to say that the way to a jubilant heart is through tears. Everything in the world opposes this principle. The world says, “Let us eat, drink, and be merry; for tomorrow we die.” The English poet Edward Young wrote, “’Tis impious in a good man to be sad.” We sing,
What’s the use of worrying?
It never was worthwhile.
So pack up your troubles in your old kit bag
And smile, smile, smile.
But Jesus says that happiness comes through sorrow. And the parallel passage in Luke 6 makes his words even sharper: “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21). Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes, “This saying condemns the apparent laughter, joviality and happiness of the world by pronouncing a woe upon it. But it promises blessing and happiness, joy and peace to those who mourn.”
It is evident, of course, that in this, as in the other Beatitudes, Jesus is declaring with a spiritual principle, a spiritual mourning, and not merely with things seen from a purely human standpoint.
The verse could mean three things. It could refer only to a human sorrow, such as the sorrow we know when faced by death or disappointments. It would be correct when it says that such sorrow can lead to comfort. In his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel William Barclay reminds his readers of an Arab proverb that says, “All sunshine makes a desert.” And it is true that a life of unmixed happiness would be unbearable and withering to the soul. Sorrow gives spice to life. It teaches us to appreciate good things. It increases our sensitivity, particularly to the needs and sorrows of others. Moreover, such sorrow will sometimes drive a man to God. John R. W. Stott, the minister of All Souls Church in London, once conducted a poll of his congregation to find out what actually caused the members of it to become Christians. He was surprised to find that a majority listed as the greatest single human factor a feeling of personal desperation, a sense of being at the end of their resources. The second beatitude could refer to such sorrow. And yet, it is hard to feel that this sense of sorrow lies at the heart of Christ’s teaching.
The beatitude also could refer to a mourning for the evil of this world, to what we could call a social conscience. It seems to me that this comes a great deal closer to Christ’s meaning, particularly if we link it to a sorrow for the world’s sin. The English social reformer, Lord Shaftesbury, probably did more to improve the life of normal men and women in England in the last century than any other person, and yet his career as a social reformer began quite simply. One day as a boy, when he was going along the streets of Harrow, he met a pauper’s funeral. The body of the poor man had been placed in a handmade coffin, shoddy and unembellished, and it was being pushed through the street on a hand-drawn cart. The men who accompanied it were apparently drunk. As they wove their way along the streets they sang their risqué drinking songs and told lewd stories. Their way led up a hill to the graveyard, and as they went up the hill the coffin slid off the cart and broke open. The scene that followed was hilarious to the drunken companions. It was disgusting to some onlookers. But to Shaftesbury it seemed an evil that called for the deepest sorrow. He said to himself, “When I grow up I am going to use my life to see that such things will not happen.”
The second beatitude can refer to such sorrow. And it does refer to it in part. Christianity is partly caring for other people. And it should produce a sound social conscience. In fact, if it does not, we have some reason to doubt our Christianity. For John said, “We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands. The man who says, ‘I know him,’ but does not do what he commands is a liar, and the truth is not in him” (1 John 2:3–4). What were Christ’s commandments? Well, there were many. But among them were these: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44); “In everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 7:12). “Give to everyone who asks you” (Luke 6:30); “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful” (Luke 6:36); “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:16). An awareness of the sin of the world should produce a mourning for its evils in Christ’s followers.
It follows from this that the Christian church should never stand aloof from the great social movements of the day or, worse yet, be critical of them. Christians should be in the vanguard of social reform. And they should be there from a heartfelt love of humanity and from an acute awareness of the horror and destructiveness of man’s sin.
I believe that this often has been true in past periods of church history. Lord Shaftesbury was one of the great Christian social reformers, but there were others: Calvin, Oberlin, Wilberforce, Moorehouse. And it would be proper to include in this list most of the pioneers of the modern missionary movement—William Carey, Robert Moffat, David Livingstone, John Paton, and others—all of whom combined an evangelistic zeal with social action. Unfortunately, however, much of the force of their social concern has been lost to the believing church today.
There are reasons for the present dullness of the evangelical church on social issues. For one thing, much of the time, money, and effort of this great body of Christendom has gone into the missionary movement, with striking results. And there is a natural limit both in time and resources to what one body of Christians can do. For another thing, confronted with the rising tide of liberalism at the start of this century, conservatives found much of their efforts taken up quite properly with a defense of Scripture and basic biblical doctrines. Third, major efforts were also made in the area of evangelism. None of these programs was wrong. All were essential. But the involvement of believers in the social ills of this and other nations was important too, and the neglect of these crying ills inevitably gave the impression that the Christians were unaware of them and, in fact, did not mourn for others.
To each of us, therefore, the second beatitude is a call to involvement in the social arena—in the struggle of blacks for true equality, the plight of underpaid workers, pollution of our natural resources, education, ethical problems in politics, medicine, and business, and other contemporary problems—just as Christians were formerly active in the war against slavery, child labor, lack of freedom of the press, and immorality. We should mourn for such things. And we should mourn deeply enough to do something about them.
Mourning for Sin
There is no doubt then that these thoughts are wrapped up in the second beatitude. It speaks to these issues. And yet, I cannot feel that even this point gets quite to the heart of Christ’s statements. Jesus was speaking of an individual mourning, but he also spoke of an individual comforting. And the combination seems to suggest that the primary mourning should be for the individual himself and for his own spiritual condition. This is a mourning for sin. And if this is the primary interpretation of the verse, then it is a promise that God himself will comfort the one who sees his own unworthiness before him.
This sense of the promise is substantiated by several factors. We already have seen in these studies that the promise of happiness to the poor in spirit is actually a promise to the one who knows himself spiritually bankrupt. It is a statement of the first qualification for a man’s justification before God. As a mourning for sin the next one of Christ’s beatitudes would naturally flow from it.
Moreover, because a mourning for sin lies at the heart of Christ’s message, it is natural to expect this theme in the first of his great sermons. When Jesus entered the synagogue at Nazareth on the day that he began his formal ministry, he read from the scroll of Isaiah. He read: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18–19). What was the deliverance Christ preached? It was not a proclamation against slavery, although that rightly followed in the history of the Christian church. Jesus did not set about to overthrow the slavery of the Roman Empire; he never preached against it. The deliverance he proclaimed was a deliverance from the tyranny of sin. And it was actually because he broke this tyranny over men that he proved so effective later—as his Spirit worked through his disciples and followers—as a corrector of many of the social ills of this world, including physical slavery.
The Gospels tell us that Jesus wept twice in his ministry, once for the unbelief of the Jews at the grave of Lazarus and once over the sin and hardness of heart of Jerusalem. Sin was the great problem. And, thus, he asked men to weep for it.
The promise of the second beatitude is “comfort,” comfort to those who sense their sin and mourn for it.
In the first place there is comfort in a deliverance from sin’s penalty. The sensitive soul will grieve for his sins and see them as the great offense to God that they are. But he may also experience the comfort that God has provided through Christ’s cross. The Bible tells us that we were dead in trespasses and sins, that we merited nothing from God but alienation and eternal death. But Jesus Christ came to step between the wrath of God against sin on the one hand and all who trust in Jesus Christ on the other. He took the blow of God’s wrath upon himself, paying the full penalty for our sin, and God has placed the full righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ to our account, so that we are seen as being perfectly acceptable before God in him. The Bible tells us that we have been made “accepted in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:6 nsb). There is unspeakable joy in this experience. This is the joy that was foretold by the angels on the evening of Christ’s birth, for they said, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10–11).
Then, too, the deliverance of Jesus Christ also means a deliverance from present sin and from its power. If you are a Christian, Christ lives in you through his Holy Spirit. You are united to him. And you are united to him in order to make a victorious, triumphant life possible.
I know that there are some who teach that there is no victory over sin in this world. And I know that, even according to the Bible, sin will always be with us. John says, “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us” (1 John 1:8). This is true. But in spite of the fact that sin will always be with the Christian so long as he lives, it is simply not true that he needs to be defeated by it. Paul in Galatians says, “Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (5:16). The book then goes on to tell what sins we shall not fulfill if we do walk in the Spirit: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, drunkenness, revelings, and the like. According to Galatians the Christian is supposed to have victory over these things.
The presence of sin in our lives is a bit like the presence of carbon monoxide in the exhaust system of an automobile. So long as the car runs, the deadly gas will be present. If it is unchecked, it will bring death to the occupant of the car. But when the car is properly run and properly maintained, the carbon monoxide is contained within the exhaust system so that it does not break forth in death and only a slight smell is present as it is mixed with the burning oil and gas fumes. In the same way, there will always be the smell of sin about us and in what we do. But it need not break out to bring death. The restraining power of Christ through the Holy Spirit will prevent it, and the contamination of death need not spread from us. In this, too, there is great comfort for the Christian.
The final aspect of God’s comfort lies in the fact that one day Christ will remove sin and all of its effects from the believer forever. This will mean a deliverance even from sin’s presence; and it will mean an end to pride, hate, suffering, sickness, and death. Now we are aware of our sin. The smell of it is about us. But the day is coming when we shall be taken from this world into Christ’s presence. In that day there will be no more sin to confess, for we shall be like him (1 John 3:2). We shall know an unmixed good. We shall be “liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). That will truly be “life on wings.” And we shall know that those who mourned for their sin have been comforted.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 1, pp. 153–165). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2002). The Sermon on the Mount: an expositional commentary (pp. 25–30). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.